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December: Developing global perspectives on sustainability with (Guest blog)

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The benefits of group work have been well-documented: Gibbs claims working as a group “has the potential measurably to improve student engagement, performance, marks and retention and usually succeeds in achieving this potential” (Gibbs 2010:1). However, successfully implementing and assessing a piece of group work is also often fraught with challenges, particularly when the students do not share a common language and/or cultural background. In groups where some or all students are non-native English speakers, there may be an ‘imbalance’ in power relations, as the ideas and views of the students with ‘stronger’ language skills often end up dominating. In many instances, non-native speakers find themselves side-lined within the group, sometimes because their language skills are weaker than other members, but also because, due to cultural and educational differences, their knowledge base is perceived as having less ‘value’.

As an EFL lecturer, I deliver a range of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) modules for international students, and, in order to encourage a better understanding of challenging group dynamics, I decided to introduce a group oral presentation as an assessed piece of work for my second year cohort. The module is open to all stage two international students and is therefore often made up of students from a range of disciplines and with English language skills ranging from near-native to fairly weak. Although some of the students may share a common cultural/linguistic background, I hoped to find a way to encourage mixed nationality groups in order to maximise the opportunity for intercultural communication and exchange.

The assignment brief required the students to prepare and deliver a group presentation based on their investigation of the social, environmental and economic impacts of a particular product. The groups were introduced to the Followthethings webpages early on in the preparation process and they were encouraged to read the student accounts on the site and to select a product to research. Dr. Paul Warwick from the Centre for Sustainable Futures at Plymouth University was also invited to give a guest lecture highlighting the ‘interconnectivity’ of issues relating to sustainable consumption and production. This engagement with the global issues relating to sustainability motivated the students to begin thinking about the areas of the world where many of the products they had read about are manufactured, grown or produced.  For a significant number of the students, this provided an opportunity to share their (often first hand) experiences of the social, environmental and economic impacts of a range of products. Students from developing countries, in particular, quickly found themselves in a position where they were able to contribute important, complex, and often overlooked, understandings of the issues relating to the implementation of ethical working practices.

In the three years this assessment has run, the presentations have covered topics as diverse as battery production in China, hair extensions in Nigeria and the illegal organ trade in Pakistan. While not all students opt to work in mixed nationality groups, the ‘international’ perspectives they have explored as a result of their engagement with has definitely enhanced each cohort’s ability to critically evaluate the demands, impacts and consequences of ethical consumer and corporate behaviour. It has also provided a real and meaningful opportunity for students from a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds to literally ‘find their voice’.

Gibbs, G. (2010). Assessment of group work: lessons from the literature. ASKe, (accessed 25th October 2012)

Helen Bowstead is a Lecturer in English as a Foreign Language at Plymouth University.

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